Only a week after its release, Black Widow is already making waves. Preview screenings set a new record for the year while the film dominated at the weekend box office, proving the simultaneous Disney+ release strategy to be an effective one. Reviews have also been broadly positive, praising the film's character work and dynamic set-pieces.
However, fan reactions have been mixed, in large part due to the movie's treatment of one of its central antagonists. In Black Widow's third act, Taskmaster, known to comic book fans as Tony Masters, is revealed to be Antonia Dreykov, relating back to Black Widow's morally questionable actions in Budapest.
Many have taken issue with this reveal, seeing it as an unearned moment that wastes the potential of a fan-favorite character. Even so, this doesn't seem to be the last fans will see of Taskmaster, with her future left open by the movie.
Amongst this fan backlash, those behind the film have defended their decisions, citing connections to story and character.
WHY TASKMASTER WAS CHANGED
In an interview with Jenna Anderson and Brandon Davis on the Phase Zero podcast, Black Widow writer Eric Pearson touched on the Taskmaster reveal. Responding to criticism, Pearson talked about the kind of pushback he's been receiving from some fans online:
'I made the mistake of looking in direct message requests, and someone said, 'I don’t mean to be out of line, but Taskmaster was the biggest betrayal of my life.' And I was just like, I got mad for a second and then I was like, well you’ve had a pretty good life then. If that’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, then you should be psyched, cause like, you know. Someone in a movie wasn’t who you wanted them to be?"
Asked if there was concern in the writer's room about a fan backlash like the kind that erupted over Iron Man 3's Mandarin reveal, Pearson said no, also noting that he "looked very, very far for like, how do we get this Tony Masters guy to believably be an agent of the Red Room."
"No, I mean, it was more discussion of how do we make-- cause Taskmaster was going to be involved and there was versions before I came that was Tony Masters. And it felt, I kept thinking, I was like, can this guy somehow not just be a goon, like, I don't want, like. Cause Dreykov and the Red Room is the thing that’s tied into Natasha personally and her past. A giant, nefarious, as we learn, spy station that is circling the globe in the atmosphere. So why is there this guy, like why would this guy be an arm of them? That’s what I kept trying to be like, what is, I, trust me, I looked very, very far for like, how do we get this Tony Masters guy to believably be an agent of the Red Room."
Speaking about the decision to switch the character to Dreykov's daughter, Pearson noted that "It just seemed to make more sense."
"It just kind of leaned more towards other things were making sense, other parts of the puzzle were adding up. Oh, they stole from Ohio the cellular blueprint of the basal ganglia, the way to deconstruct free will. Okay, they’ve got the ability to build, rebuild the mind. Oh, Dreykov’s daughter, she used, Natasha used her as bait, blew her up. Well, what if she didn't survive and this guy who has, you know, a lot of brain science, is that a good way to find these photographic reflexes? It just seemed to make more sense."
TASKMASTER'S EVOLUTION DURING DEVELOPMENT
Pearson's comments are quite illuminating, helping to shed some light on the development of Black Widow and, in particular, the Taskmaster character. According to this interview, writers initially explored putting Masters behind the mask. Even so, these earlier drafts seem to have still envisioned him as an underling, deferential to Dreykov and the Red Room.
In changing the identity of the character, the writers wanted to better align Taskmaster with the Red Room and fit her more in with Natasha's arc in the film. Even as this diverts from the source material, it is perhaps a better match with the story being told.
Choosing story and character over adherence to comic book storylines can often be controversial, something made clear by the backlash to the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3. However, like with that character, who will be returning in earnest in Shang-Chi, Marvel may decide to reconfigure or replace this iteration of the Taskmaster in the future.